Writing is an act of empathy. It is literally walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It is exploring the facets of a character’s life: their experiences, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their failures, and their successes. Reading is the same act in reverse as the reader turns the writer’s words into cognition and emotion.
I am not all people and yet writing is a window into the lives of others. I have never flown a space fighter (Written In The Stars) never risked my life in trench warfare (Written In The Snow), never been a politician or journalist (Written In Stone), never been a scientist-explorer (The Forbidden Zone). I’ve never been in a bisexual poly relationship (The Best Of Both Worlds), never considered myself asexual or experienced transitioning (Wings Of Destruction). I’ve never been pregnant (The Miracle). I’ve never turned into a dragon (The Dragon’s Curse), though some might argue that last one on certain occasions. 😉
We cannot know the exact experiences of others, but we can relate based on our common personhood. We know certain aspects of life are painful or wonderful, and while each and every person’s life is experienced differently, we can find common ground to stand upon if we look hard enough. It is this that binds us when all other links are tenuous.
I came to writing because I love the act of creation. I love making something from nothing. I love to build things. I also love to see the world through different eyes; eyes that are not mine and yet are mine at the same time. What are the struggles of my fellow humans? What roadblocks stand in the way of their lives and how do they overcome those obstacles? What can I learn about people other than myself by experiencing a day in their lives? How can I better stand in solidarity with others by putting myself in their place? What if I had to live as them for the rest of my life? What would that life be like? I then bring the answers to those questions home and hopefully have learned something along the way.
Empathy, like any human facet, is imperfect. There is no substitute for lived experience, a fact I know well. Listening, watching, and learning are all vital tools in the act of writing. It is possible to go in with the best of intentions and come out with the worst of results; a pile of cliches and stereotypes that do not represent a living being but only a caricature of one.
And yet, as a bisexual, non-binary person, I can appreciate the sheer effort of will it takes for someone to reach out and stand in my shoes. Of the hours spent at a keyboard, trying to reconcile lived experiences with thought patterns, processes and terminology that are often so complicated and contradictory that those in the community themselves argue over correct usage and meaning. There is nothing that says a writer has to try and reach out across the ether to understand me; they could far more easily stick to M/F romance and probably garner a far larger readership. They could write about M/M shifters and BDSM-lite and never raise so much as an eyebrow. But they have chosen to come into my world and probably spend a great deal of time there. They want to walk a mile in my shoes and the shoes of others like me, those who are not generally understood in the mainstream, and communicate our stories to the world. They don’t have to do this. They probably can’t explain their writing choices to their friends and families. But they do it anyway. It’s an act of love and generosity that I am grateful for any time that I see it.
Yet sadly, what I am seeing at the end of their road is a massive STOP sign. I am seeing outraged writers and readers frequently stating phrases that chill me to the bone like “this shouldn’t exist” or “what kind of publisher allows this” or “you should only write x/y/z if you are x/y/z”. I am seeing accusations of racism and sexism and homophobia and biphobia and transphobia thrown around along with the words “hurtful” and “harmful” and “problematic”: accusations that hurt everyone involved–not only those who feel victimized, but those who made a legitimate effort to reach out to someone who is not them, only to get their hands slapped down. “Write what you know” seems to have become a common phrase, which seems to be a byword for “don’t write about others; only yourself”, as if the act of empathy is a worthless one. And yet writing cannot exist without it. The creative act requires it as surely as a body needs air. Without it, all you would see from me are stories of a person who operates machines in a factory night in, night out, who occasionally ruminates on gender and sexuality and the fact that Americans put vegetables in meat pies while I drink a lot of tea. It might even be a curiosity the first time, but definitely not the fifth.
As I said before, empathy is imperfect. Authors do make mistakes. I have slipped in my time. Editors have caught some awful doozies from me; phrases I’ve heard in passing where I was completely unaware of their etymology, especially with my origins in England where the same words often have different meanings (I recall my mother calling me, one day, utterly horrified that the man at the hotel had for some reason mentioned her period; turns out he meant period as in full-stop, not her monthly cycle). We live in a world where we are trying, and often failing, every day, to understand the lives and feelings of others. Every day holds the potential for gaffes; you see them in the news all the time. We pile on people for saying something incorrect, even if the intent was never cruel or unkind. The villain of the hour usually has to apologize profusely, and is forever associated with their words no matter how much they wish they could make them vanish.
In my opinion, the outrage and the gatekeeping is harming our community. Perhaps, as people, we have come to fear failure the way we fear snakes, spiders, and bears: with the idea that should we come across one, we will die. We’ve certainly made the act of failure such a horrible thing to consider that one can only tremble to behold it–imagining the loss of career, respect, and earnings one can experience with just a few poorly considered words. Yet it’s often by the act of failure that we learn the most. We learn where we slipped, where we accidentally harmed instead of healed. It’s often by failing that we challenge our own assumptions about the world and dispel bad stereotypes, yet the punishment for failure nowadays is so great we don’t give anybody the chance to fail, and thereby learn. I’m not surprised if authors are scared away from writing trans people or other minority groups by the fact that one error in grammar can cause a flurry of outrage. Don’t believe me? Look at the replies on any post on Facebook or Twitter where a well-meaning ally uses the word “transgendered” instead of “transgender”. What kind of world do we live in when expressing solidarity and love to a misunderstood and marginalized group of people is considered an offensive and hurtful act? Where a person can decry the existence of bathroom bill HB2, calling for its repeal in the strongest terms and somehow still be “doing it wrong”?
I don’t want authors to be scared away from writing as an act of empathy. I want to foster understanding. I know that authors, as human beings, will sometimes falter and fail, but I know that I’m just as likely to screw up and hope that you are as gracious about my failures as I hope to be about yours.
If you want to write in my world, I say this: you are welcome, no matter who you are, your ability as a writer, or how you identify. Come in, pull up a chair, and drink a cup of tea with me. I love to read your stories. I love to see bits of myself in your works. I love to feel that you are trying to reach me through the noise and the confusion of modern life. I know that you won’t always get it right. Sometimes you might even get it so badly wrong that it hurts.
But I love you for trying.